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Hateful protests by late pastor's Kansas church helped gay-rights cause, both sides believe

  • CORRECTION Obit Fred Phelps.JPEG

    CORRECTS DATE OF DEATH TO WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19 INSTEAD OF THURSDAY MARCH 19 - FILE - In this July 1, 2007 file photo, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. prepares to protest outside the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Phelps, the founder of the Kansas church known for anti-gay protests and pickets at military funerals, died late Wednesday, March 19, 2014, his family said. He was 84. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File) (The Associated Press)

  • c220deb823c0020b4f0f6a7067000e9f.jpg

    This July 1, 1991 file photo, Fred Phelps Sr., demonstrates in Topeka's Gage Park in Topeka, Kan. Phelps, the fiery founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, a small Kansas church, who drew international condemnation for outrageous and hate-filled protests that blamed almost everything, including the deaths of AIDS victims and U.S. soldiers, on America's tolerance for gay people, has died the family said Thursday, March 20, 2014. He was 84. (AP Photo/The Topeka Capital Journal) (The Associated Press)

Fred Phelps Sr. led his small Topeka church for more than two decades in a bellicose crusade against gays and lesbians, declaring that the U.S. was doomed because of its tolerance of homosexuality.

But the tactics of Phelps and his Westboro Baptist followers created public circuses that some say may have helped the gay-rights movement.

Protesters targeted grieving families at military funerals and taunted people entering other churches, often carrying signs with anti-gay slurs and vulgar language or symbols.

Following Phelps' death Wednesday at age 84, some gay-rights advocates suggested his church created sympathy for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgendered.

Religious leaders who oppose gay marriage also said the pastor's tactics clouded the debate over such issues and put them on the defensive in discussing both policy and faith.

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